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BASEBALL GOES NATIONAL
Baseball was trying this week to make some sense out of its several predicaments—and by thus flouting its own tradition of simple drift it threw the whole country into an uproar. Mayors flitted back and forth across the nation or pouted in their chambers; state legislatures jammed through bills, and governors hastened to sign them; there were shouts from the halls of Congress, a statement from the Federal Communications Commission and a flurry in Wall Street. Private citizens hastily formed committees and planned syndicates. The hullabaloo was everywhere. Well, not quite everywhere: the Borough of Brooklyn (which stood to lose its Dodgers) remained strangely calm.
The sense that baseball is trying to make consists of facing the following facts:
1) Just as the discovery of gold made it inevitable that California would be admitted to the Union, so the population explosion in southern California has made it inevitable that Los Angeles would be admitted to the Majors. At the same time it has become advantageous to establish a second big league outpost at San Francisco. Air transport makes both moves eminently practical.
2) Television has presented baseball with the greatest following in its history, and baseball is entitled to draw direct strength from this following. One obvious, if costly, way is to provide bigger, better and more accessible ball parks and entice some of the new fans into the open air. Another way is to deliver the games to U.S. homes, extracting a small charge for the now free show.
Reading the writing in the sky, the National League has managed to act before the American League. Meeting in Chicago last week, the National League owners gave the Brooklyn Dodgers permission to move to Los Angeles and the New York Giants a green light into San Francisco. By thus approving a total withdrawal from the nation's largest city, the Nationals seemed, to many observers, to have taken leave of their senses. But then came a sense-making report that Skiatron TV, Inc. of New York was prepared to guarantee both the Dodgers and the Giants $2 million a year for pay-as-you-look-television rights on the West Coast. This caused the Wall Street flurry in Skiatron stock although Walter O'Malley, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the real master strategist of the projected upheaval, declared himself innocent of any involvement in the TV deal.
At this point a slight digression is in order if one is to digest this heady baseball chowder. As indicated, all these fast-breaking developments represent baseball's attempt to make sense out of its abrupt collision with the facts of mid-century life.
For years it was not necessary for baseball to make sense. Before the coming of television, the big league game operated as a sort of provincial entertainment whose excitements were largely a matter of hearsay to a good two-thirds of the country. Nobody, in those old days, doubted that Babe Ruth existed, but only a comparative handful (as measured against today's television audiences) had seen him mince to the plate on those toothpick legs and belt the ball into the adjacent streets. Small boys in Arkansas, say, could not imitate his batting style as they can Mickey Mantle's. Big league baseball was a tight little world, and old-line baseball men liked it that way. They presented a united front in resisting the numbering of players' uniforms, and they considered the scoring of hits and errors to be trade secrets not to be divulged to paying customers. Balls fouled into the stands they regarded as club property still, and they sent ushers scurrying to retrieve them. In extreme cases ushers were authorized to offer a pass for the next day's game in exchange for the ball. Apparently, the owners considered the model T Ford to be the ultimate advancement of the automotive industry and confidently expected that a few vacant lots in the neighborhood would accommodate as many as could be sold locally. Seat cushions, rented at 10�, seemed a daring but worthwhile concession to spectator comfort.
It was no wonder that the Supreme Court of the United States looked upon this innocent-appearing enterprise as a kind of business not subject to the restrictions of other businesses operating across state lines. This affectionate attitude toward baseball persisted even when smart operators like Larry MacPhail put over night baseball and Lou Perini of Boston engineered the first modern shift of a franchise, even when radio and television rights brought the clubs handsome profits to add to those of the concessions and the parking lots.
But now, baseball may have hastened the day of reckoning which has already overtaken professional football and made it subject to the antitrust laws. Representative Emanuel Celler of New York has announced that he will take advantage of a previously scheduled hearing (set for June 17) to inquire into the "big business" aspects of the proposed shifts and the financial affairs of the clubs involved. Meanwhile, Representative Kenneth B. Keating of New York is ready with a bill that would make some of baseball's affairs (television contracts, etc.) subject to regulation while safeguarding the present player contract with its reserve clause.